Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Fed’

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (August 2022)

September 13, 2022 6 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy, but to get these tweets in real time on CPI morning you need to subscribe to @InflGuyPlus by going to the shop at https://inflationguy.blog/shop/ , where you can also subscribe to the Enduring Investments Quarterly Inflation Outlook. Sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

The tweets below may have some deletions and redactions from what actually appeared on the private feed. Also, I’ve rearranged the comments on the charts to be right below the charts themselves, for readability without repeating charts, although in real time they appeared in comments associated with a retweeted chart.

  • Back to CPI Day – my favorite day of the month. Yours too? I’m glad.
  • A reminder to subscribers of the path we take today: First the walkup; then at 8:30ET, when the data drops, I’ll be pulling that in and will post a number of charts and numbers, in fairly rapid-fire succession.
  • I will put replies to those charts as necessary. Then I’ll run some other charts. What I will NOT be doing this month is the live commentary. Last month, that actually slowed everything down because of the multitasking.
  • So instead, afterwards (hopefully 9 or 9:10ish) I will have a private conference call for subscribers where I’ll quickly summarize the numbers. Not sure if that’s valuable, but we’ll try it.
  • After my comments on the number, I will post a partial summary at https://inflationguy.blog and later will podcast a summary at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app.
  • Thanks again for subscribing! And now for the walkup.
  • There was a talking head this morning saying “we should only care about the sequential number, not the y/y number. Those usually say the same things but not recently. And the sequential number is fresher” (I’m paraphrasing).
  • Couple of things wrong with this statement but I will focus on the main one: there is no planet on which one economic data point should matter overmuch to your view.
  • Can one number refute your null hypothesis? These are experiment results, samples from a distribution we can’t know. One data point would have to be wildly different than your null, and if it was then you’d suspect there is some quirk in the data.
  • For example, that’s what happened last month: median CPI printed again a little above 0.5%, but there was a very low headline number (because of gasoline) and a very low core because of large movements in small categories.
  • Large moves in small categories aren’t likely to be repeated, and they don’t tell you a lot about the overall distribution. They are more likely to be mean-reverting than trending. They shouldn’t change your view much, especially since Median is still rising at >6% pace.
  • The other issue with what he said is: the real question isn’t whether inflation is accelerating or decelerating. It is decelerating, and so the y/y number will decline. Most of the deceleration is in core goods. That has been expected for some time. Partly ports, partly dollar.
  • The real question is: will we recede on core/median to 2.5%, or 5%? I think it’s closer to the latter than the former, and not until next year, but there is no way that ONE NUMBER could really answer that.
  • So I care about sticky, I care about whether we are seeing a new uptrend in core services, I care about rents. I don’t care so much about lodging away from home.
  • Now, that doesn’t mean we should ignore this number. Indeed, to me it seems that expectations for this number have swung really to the low side. Both in economist land and in trading land.
  • Here is a chart of changes over the last month. Large declines in breaks at the short end – although to be fair a decent part of that is carry. But the optics influence the forecasts of those who don’t really dig into the guts, and that might be an opportunity.
  • Forecasts to me look low. Consensus is -0.1% on headline, +0.3% on core. The y/y forecast for core is 6.1% (which tells us that the real forecast is 0.32%-0.34%. Any higher and m/m rounds to 0.4%. Any lower and the y/y rounds down to 6.0%.)
  • That seems low. Last month’s 0.31% on core was infected by a lot of one-offs. Airfares -7.8%, Lodging away from home -2.7%, car/truck rental, etc. But primary rents were 0.7% m/m, and OER 0.63% m/m. So how do we get another 0.32% on core?
  • Well, you COULD get a retracement of some of the rents rise last month. That’s really the only thing I’d worry about. Some of the drops from last month may retrace (although core goods deceleration is real). But 0.3% seems sporty, especially with median still where it is.
  • The core/headline spread looks to me like it should be about -0.36%, so if we get 0.4% on core then we could print a small positive on headline. I think that’s where the risk is, unless rents are way off.
  • Used cars will drag a bit again this month, but it won’t be large.
  • I should say the interbank market is more in line with me than with economists. 295.71 NSA traded yesterday. That would be an NSA m/m decline, and a small positive SA.
  • The real question is the Fed’s reaction function. And I think their reaction to THIS number is basically nil. They’re going to go 75bps at the next meeting because the market has validated that level. The question is NEXT meeting; that will depend on how markets are behaving.
  • The Fed BELIEVES they are close to done, which is why Powell can make a vacuous “until the job is done” statement. The job (shrinking the balance sheet) has barely started, but they may be close to done on short rates.
  • Because if they’re ahead (and they think they are), at some point they need to pause to see the effect of their actions to date.
  • For today, there may be downside equity risk if the number is a little higher as I expect. But if it’s as-expected, there may be UPSIDE risk…probably fadeable, but I think the market reaction function and the Fed reaction function may be diverging.
  • So I know what I’m going to do when the number prints what the number prints, but I am less sure of what the market is going to do. Kinda feels there is still downside to equities. With real rates where they are, equities still look expensive (chart uses our equity return model).
  • OK, that’s all for the walkup. Number in 10 minutes. Good luck!

  • oooops
  • M/M, Y/Y, and prior Y/Y for 8 major subgroups
  • Food and beverages still rising. 0.77% m/m and 10.9% y/y! All other subindices contributed. “Other” was +0.73% m/m so that will be interesting. Medical Care +0.68% and that is also going to be interesting/disturbing.

  • Here is my early and automated guess at Median CPI for this month: 0.738%
  • Look at the median chart. This is just an estimate, and depending what the median category is it might not be precisely right…but if it is, then the 0.738% m/m is a new high for the m/m. OUCH.
  • Core Goods: 7.06% y/y Core Services: 6.07% y/y
  • Core goods actually went UP y/y, just a tiny bit, 7.06%. And core services continuing to rise, 6.07%. Convergence at 6.5% is not what people were hoping for.
  • Primary Rents: 6.74% y/y OER: 6.29% y/y
  • Further: Primary Rents 0.74% M/M, 6.74% Y/Y (6.31% last) OER 0.71% M/M, 6.29% Y/Y (5.83% last) Lodging Away From Home 0.1% M/M, 4% Y/Y (1% last)
  • Primary rents 0.74% m/m. OER 0.71% m/m. That’s the big ouch. I read this morning on Bloomberg I think that ‘rents are near a peak.’ Uh, sure. Lodging Away from Home was positive…didn’t retrace last month’s drop, but didn’t repeat it either.
  • I mean, this is a little scary, right? No sign of a peak yet.
  • Some ‘COVID’ Categories: Airfares -4.62% M/M (-7.83% Last) Lodging Away from Home 0.08% M/M (-2.74% Last) Used Cars/Trucks -0.1% M/M (-0.41% Last) New Cars/Trucks 0.84% M/M (0.62% Last)
  • Airfares keep sliding, but again a lot of this is jet fuel. As has been pointed out elsewhere, if you quality-adjust airfares then inflation is still soaring. Used cars was a small drag, as expected. But look at new cars!
  • The rise in new cars is probably the reason that core goods advanced. 0.8% m/m in new cars is impressive.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy: 15.7% y/y
  • Only surprise here is that it isn’t retracing nearly as much as people expected. You know why? FOOD. When was the last time we really worried about food prices driving the CPI?
  • Piece 2: Core Commodities: 7.06% y/y
  • Piece 3: Core Services less Rent of Shelter: 5.75% y/y
  • This is even more concerning than the shelter numbers, in my mind. I’ll dig deeper into medical care, but this has been a well-behaved part of CPI for a long time. BUT IT’S WAGES. That’s what matters in this group. This is where your wage/price spiral would show up.
  • Piece 4: Rent of Shelter: 6.31% y/y
  • So 0.12% on headline (SA), 0.57% on core. Not exactly what the market was expecting.
  • Yeah, so I guess last month were one-offs. But those of us “in the know” knew that, right?
  • Last 12 core CPI figures
  • Stocks are NOT happy with this. And that’s no surprise! But it’s not because the Fed is going to go 100bps this month. They won’t. It’s because suddenly “maybe they’re not as close to done as we thought.” More on my thoughts about the Fed later.
  • I need to run some of my slower charts now but looking at markets the only quirky thing – I understand the market but it’s weird – is that energy prices are down. The theory is that more Fed hikes slow the economy more, but if you’re connecting growth and inflation then>>
  • …you’d have to also say that growth must be stronger than we think. Energy is confusing nominal and real prices again, too. Maybe it’s a dollar thing. Dollar is definitely stronger as Fed arc is perceived higher now.
  • …but it’s a weird idea that the more inflation you get, the more you want to sell commodities, isn’t it?
  • Core ex-shelter rose to 6.36% from 6.04%. Back to the level of May. Hard to tell on this chart. This will probably continue to decline, but…this is the really surprising part of the report. Going to get to the smaller stuff in a bit and see what’s up.
  • Car and Truck rental was -0.5% m/m (NSA)…it was a big drop last month as well. Interesting and not sure what that means.
  • No other interesting declines. On the upside was New cars…at 4% of the basket, that was 3-4bps of the surprise roughly. Not enough to explain it all!
  • Lots of other motor vehicle stuff. Maintenance and repair, insurance, parts and equipment…all rose at greater than a 10% annualized pace.
  • Also…south urban OER rose 0.9% m/m or so. So rents and prices are rising in the south, but not falling in the north. Some of that is migration. The median category was Rent of Primary Residence, which as noted was large.
  • With the median as Primary Rents, my 0.74% m/m median guess is probably pretty solid. That takes y/y median to 6.7% I believe. yowza.
  • Medical Care…Prescription Drugs +0.36% m/m (NSA). Dental Services +1.31%. Hospital Services +0.78%. YES. I’ve been wondering where this was for a long time. Still only up to 4% y/y, but it’s way overdue.
  • Similarly, prescription drugs…3.2% y/y, highest since 2018. I wonder if the determination that Medicare will ‘negotiate’ more drug prices is leading manufacturers to hike prices in advance?
  • OK…college tuition and fees, +1.3% m/m. That’s not unusual for the NSA to jump in this month; tuition jumps once a year basically. But that means the y/y change is going to move higher as the SA adjustment is smoothed in. Now it’s at 2.79% up from 2.35%.
  • Colleges have cost pressures too. And wage exposure. Over the last few years tuition inflation has been low because endowments and government support has been huge. This is all fading though, and costs are still climbing. Look out above.
  • Finally, in “Other”. We have cosmetics, perfume, bath, nail preparations (yes that’s a category) +2.3% m/m. Financial Services ex-Inflation Guy +0.87% m/m. Haircuts and other personal care services +0.66%. Notice something there? A lot of wages.
  • On the plus side, “Funeral expenses” was -0.5% m/m. So we got that going for us. Cigarettes +1.1% m/m.
  • While I wait for the diffusion stuff to calculate I’ll start the (brief) summary call. Dial the conference line at <<redacted>>. I’ll start in 3-4 minutes.
  • OK last chart. The red line here isn’t really going off the chart (yet) – it’s median at 6.99% (est). The EI Inflation Diffusion Index – no surprise – is not coming off the boil. Inflation remains high, but also broad. Some categories are slowing, but some are accelerating!

Honestly, I came into today thinking that this was a less-important CPI report than we had seen in a while. As I said in the walk-up, I thought the real question is whether this changes the Fed’s decision at the next meeting, not this month’s meeting. As it turns out, the answer to that is probably yes (but we have another CPI before that meeting). But the more important question that has re-surfaced is, “have we really seen the highs in inflation yet?”

That seems crazy to ask, if you believed that this was all one-offs caused by clogged ports and “supply constraints.” It hasn’t been about that in a long time – and really, never was, since those clogged ports were caused by artificially-induced demand – but if you’re still in that camp you’re utterly shocked here. But it still seems wild to ask from my perspective. My view has been that if the money supply has risen 42% since the beginning of the COVID crisis, and prices are only up 15%, then prices have a lot more to do before they are in line with money growth. But I thought that would happen more gradually, with a 5%ish inflation that stuck around longer than people expected.

That’s less clear now. If core services ex-shelter is really taking the baton from core goods, that’s really bad news. Because core services ex-shelter is where wage pressure really lives. We don’t import services; we pay people to provide them. If you want a wage-price spiral, look in core services ex-shelter to see if it’s happening. Honestly? That part of CPI was already looking a little spritely in recent reports. But it looks to have really broken out now. That’s very disturbing. It adds momentum to the CPI.

Ultimately, it’s still all about whether there’s too much money chasing too few goods. But if a wage-price spiral gets started, then that will manifest in higher money velocity over time so that even slower money growth will be associated with rising prices. That’s a bad thing.

By the way, it isn’t anything the Fed can break with interest rates. Decreasing the money supply has never really been the Fed’s focus, but that’s the lever they needed to be moving. And now? Doing that now would have less of an effect, if we have momentum in pricing again.

It’s still the right move, but the FOMC has made a terrible mess of this and is going to wear it.

That being said, there is another CPI due before the next Fed meeting. My thinking had been that the Fed figured they were close to done (otherwise, Powell beating his chest with the manly-but-vacuous ‘until the job is done’ thing…which by the way is going to become a meme just like ‘transitory’…just didn’t make any sense), so that if this number was as-expected they would be considering just how soon to pause their hikes. Maybe as soon as November. Now, that’s sort of out the window.

The market reaction makes eminent sense given this backdrop. But you didn’t need me to tell you that. Before this even printed, the fact that expected real equity returns were basically below long-term TIPS returns meant that being in equities didn’t make a lot of sense. It makes less now…at least, at this level. We may be about to see a different level.

High Prices Don’t Cure High Prices

April 23, 2022 10 comments

This was an interesting week, in which it seemed that equity investors finally and abruptly got the message that high inflation is bad for the market; increasing interest rates are bad for the market; declining bid/offer liquidity is bad for the market; high energy prices are bad for the market; global geopolitical unrest is bad for the market; and a strong dollar is (eventually) bad for the market. The last two days in the stock market was a remarkably steady and orderly melting. Will it continue? Well, none of those trends I just mentioned look as if they are about to change significantly, so the only question is whether the extraordinary popular delusion returns.

The proximate cause for the selloff seems to have been the hawkish talk from Fed speakers, including the floating of the trial balloon early in the week about the possibility of a 75bp tightening. By the end of Friday, Cleveland Fed President Mester was actively pouring cold water on the notion that anything so aggressive was out of the question, while still talking in terms of 50bps increments.

I admit that as of only a few months ago, I didn’t think the Fed would hike rates more than about 75bps in total before they lost their nerve. On the other hand, they’re about 500bps behind the curve, so color me surprised…but not impressed.

To be sure, I also thought the stock market would have reacted before this point. And I do think that it is easier to talk about how much you’re going to work out this summer until it gets hot. So we will see.

But, on to my real topic today: the annoying canard that “high prices are the cure for high prices,” which is a phrase so absurd on its face that the discussion really shouldn’t go much further than that. The phrase implies that we can’t have inflation because if we have inflation, then prices will come down. It’s one reason that people are expecting used car prices to drop by as much as they previously rose – because “no one can afford a car at those prices!”

The idea is that as prices rise, the amount of money in your pocket can’t buy as many things. Therefore, real demand must suffer because higher prices mean that people can buy less stuff. Ergo, inflation causes recessions (which is weird, because we are always told how expansions cause inflation – which means that expansions must cause recessions. Are you feeling a ‘down the rabbit hole’ sensation yet?).

This is another example of a stock-flow fallacy. Or maybe it’s a fallacy of composition. It’s a micro/macro mistake. The point is that it doesn’t work that way.

The system can’t run out of money. If prices go up 25%, it doesn’t mean that you can buy 20% less stuff. Well, perhaps you can buy 20% less stuff, today, until you run out of money. But the person who sold you the car now has 25% more money than he would have previously, had he sold the same car before. Maybe you are out of money, but he has 25% more money. The money doesn’t leave the system when you buy something. It only leaves your wallet. (The stock market works exactly the same way, and no one ever questions why stock prices can’t keep going up because investors are using up all of their money, right?).

Now, if the total amount of money in the system is the same today as it was before the 25% increase in prices, and the velocity of exchange doesn’t change, then yes – that 25% price increase won’t stick because in aggregate we will be spending the same amount of money at higher prices, which means we take home fewer goods and services. If on the other hand the amount of money in the system went up by 25%, then total expenditures (if velocity is roughly constant) will be the same in unit terms as before. The system doesn’t grind to a halt and force prices lower. The system reaches equilibrium at prices that are 25% higher. By the same token, if there is 40% more money in the system, then those 25% price increases won’t be enough, there will be shortages, and prices will keep rising.

This seems like a good point to recall that M2 money since the end of 2019 has risen 42%. Tell me again why Used Car prices need to retrace so much?

The real question, to me, is why more prices haven’t gone up 42%. My answer is that we are still in the adjustment period. It takes time for that money to wash around the system, and it’s still on the rinse cycle.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (March 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • It’s #CPI #inflation day again, and a watershed one at that. If you had told me back at the beginning of my career in 1990 that we would see 8.5% inflation again, I would not have been surprised. If you had told me it would take 32 years, I would have been flabbergasted.
  • But, here we are. The consensus Bloomberg estimate is for 8.4% on headline inflation with 6.6% on core. That’s monthly of about 1.25% and 0.5% (!) But last month, the interbank market was looking at an 8.6% peak, so I guess that’s good. Energy has come off the boil some.
  • But this is the first number that is fully post-Ukraine-invasion so it will still get a big dollop of energy inflation.
  • Before I go on: after my comments on the number, I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com and later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com . And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. Please stop by/tune in.
  • First, the good news. I expect today’s figures will mark the highs for the year. The comps get really hard hereafter: in April 2021, Core CPI rose 0.86% m/m, 0.75% in May, and 0.80% in June.
  • The bad news is that inflation might not ebb very far. The last 5 monthly core prints have been between 0.5% and 0.6%. The central tendency of the distribution appears to have moved up from 2-3% to maybe as high as 6%+.
  • That means that even when inflation is at an ebb, we’re looking at 3-4 ish, not 1ish. More good news though! The Fed in theory has total control of this. If it aggressively shrinks the balance sheet, then it can wring inflation out of the system.
  • I have no doubts that the Fed has the tools. There have been signs they aren’t focusing on the right ones. And there’s at least new vigor in the talk. But I am still skeptical that they are willing to break things.
  • By aggressively shrinking the balance sheet, I don’t mean $60bln a month; I mean taking the whole thing down to $2-4T in a reasonably short period of time.
  • But while it now looks like the FOMC will bull ahead with 50bps this month (surprising me), I just can’t bring myself to believe that it will crack the stock market and keep tightening through the recession we’ll get in late 2022/early 2023.
  • 275bps of rate hikes? Color me skeptical as soon as the growth data starts to flag a bit, or unemployment ticks up.
  • That’s really the longer-term question. Will the Fed do what it takes to break the cycle they put into motion, by reversing it? AND will they resist responding to the next recession with more of the same? I have my doubts. Would be happy to be wrong.
  • Wages, food, and rents have been booming. There is some feedback going on here. Of course, the main culprit continues to be the huge increase in the quantity of money over the last few years. The rest of it is micro.
  • But if you’re looking at supply chain issues – they haven’t gone away. In some cases they’re getting worse. As a reminder, though, that’s how inflation manifests, is in shortages of things that are over-demanded thanks to the money gusher. Prices adjust in response.
  • The bond market is starting to adjust to the realities of a hawkish Fed although not yet really putting rates at anything we would consider neutral (with a 10y rate around GDP+desired inflation, say 4-5% total).
  • Over the last month, inflation expectations have been broadly unchanged to slightly lower – although a lot of that is carry going away. Real rates are up 50-100bps, and nominal rates up 80-85bps. That’s big, but not nearly big enough to make a serious difference.
  • Why hasn’t the stock market begun to reflect the higher inflation? Partly because inflation expectations still haven’t firmly broken higher. And, after all, real rates are still slightly negative. But we’ll get there.
  • Now, in today’s number we will look aghast at the food category. High and persistent inflation in food and energy is not something policymakers can do a lot about, but it IS what leads to global political unrest…which leads to more supply chain problems and de-globalization.
  • Rents will remain high, currently trending towards 5-6% as Primary Rents continue to adjust post-eviction-moratorium.
  • And Owners’ Equivalent Rent remains high but steadier (at least recently). This is likely to remain so for the rest of 2022. Remember, the rent pieces are the big slow-moving pieces. Usually slow-moving, that is.
  • On the other side, I think there is a chance that Used Cars are a drag although prices themselves aren’t going to go back to the old levels. Might retrace a bit, but the new price level is higher – that’s what the money does. So rate of increase will decline. Level? Not so much.
  • But airfares and lodging away from home may be adds. Look as usual for the breadth; the odd stories will be the categories that did NOT rise.
  • I’m also still watching the Medical Care subgroup, as the inflation there has remained surprisingly tame through all of this. Only Medical Care and Education/Communication are below 2.5% y/y among the major categories! They’re due to participate eventually.
  • Here we go. Three minutes. Good luck. Take a picture to remember this by. At least until we get higher numbers in 3 years.

  • Pretty close. The headline number showed 8.5% y/y because the monthly number was just a little higher than expectations. But with all the volatility, that’s a great consensus estimate. Core was quite soft, at 0.32% m/m. Well, that’s soft these days.
  • Y/y core CPI therefore was only a snick or two higher, 6.44% y/y vs 6.42% y/y last month. As a reminder, hard comps are coming up so that probably marks the highs in both headline and core. Question is how far and how fast they drop.
  • That was the lowest core CPI figure since the three soft ones of July/Aug/Sep last year. We’ll look at the components.
  • A big culprit was, as I thought it might be, Used Cars. The private surveys had had a decent drop recently; in the CPI they were -3.8% m/m so that the y/y is “only” 35.3%.
  • Airfares, were +10.7% m/m. Lodging away from home +3.28%. But those are smaller weights. New Cars were only +0.18% m/m, so it does look like while New Car prices are going up, Used Car prices are also going down to re-establish a more normal relationship. This will take some time.
  • Car and truck rental was +11.7% m/m. That’s remarkable too. Rental car companies are having trouble getting enough new cars, and that’s one reason used car prices won’t plunge any time soon. But also, people are traveling again!
  • Food & Beverages: +0.96% m/m, +8.5% y/y. Food prices won’t recede soon. In addition to the loss of Russian and Ukraine supplies, there has been a recent culling of chickens due to bird flu. Like we needed that.
  • Core inflation ex-housing declined from 7.6% to 7.5%. Big whoop.
  • Core goods prices, thanks significantly to Used Cars, decelerated to 11.7% from 12.3%. But core good prices accelerated to 4.7% from 4.4%. Until the last 3 months core services hadn’t been at a new 30-year high, but they are now.
  • Remember, services prices are the slower-moving ones. BTW, this month Primary Rents were +0.43% (y/y up to 4.54% from 4.31%) and OER was also +0.43% (y/y 4.45% vs 4.17%). Both still headed higher but both slightly lower than last month.
  • In Medical Care: medicinal drugs was +0.23%; Doctor’s Services +0.49%; Hospital Services +0.40% for an overall increase in medical care of 0.55% m/m. Y/Y up to 2.86%.
  • Education/Communication was DOWN m/m, -0.17%. It’s really the only holdout category here. And if you want to find a place where there should be adjustments to LOWER quality post-COVID (implying more inflation), this is it!
  • Haven’t talked abt Apparel for a while. The y/y increase there is now ~6.8%. Apparel is a category that has been in deflation on net since the Berlin Wall fell. We import almost all of it. And prices have recovered the entire COVID discount and don’t look like they’re slowing.
  • Looking at housing, it is now running a bit hotter than my model; however, I think we could get an offsetting snap-back above the model reversing the underperformance during the eviction moratorium.
  • The main problem with housing inflation isn’t that it is going to 18%, but that it is slow-moving and it’s going to stay high for quite a while. High means 4.5%-5.5%, maybe a bit more even; given its weight in the CPI that means core CPI isn’t going back to 2% soon.
  • Market check, just for comic’s sake: Stocks absolutely love the decline in used cars which led to a softer core number. Breakevens are lower, but not so much.
  • While I wait for the spinning beach ball, this is a good time to remind you that a summary of all of these tweets will be on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com within an hour or so after I conclude. Then later today I will have a podcast version at https://inflationguy.podbean.com
  • The median CPI chart kinda tells the story. This was really never ‘transitory.’ The entire distribution has been steadily moving higher and breaking from the old range to a new range.
  • People ask me the best inflation hedge these days? For most normal people with normal amounts of money (annual purchases of these are limited), i-series savings bonds are the best deal the US Government offers. Maybe ever, at least when real rates everywhere else are negative. “The interest rate on inflation-adjusted U.S. savings bonds will soon approach 10%”  https://on.wsj.com/3rkEFVw
  • We put our database in the cloud so everything is super slow at the moment. I’m going to call a halt here. Some of my other regular charts will be in the post, at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com , so stop by later and check it out (or go there now and subscribe to the post).
  • Bottom line is that the basic story is the same. Broad and deep inflationary pressures. Don’t get distracted by the used cars thing; it didn’t create the inflation and it isn’t putting it out.
  • No sign yet that these pressures are ebbing. In fact, the acceleration in Medical Care bears watching. Also, the extended rise in food & energy is going to have other repercussions.
  • Is the Fed going to hike aggressively and (more importantly) squeeze down the balance sheet aggressively in this context? If stocks and bonds were going to be unchanged, sure. But they’re not going to be.
  • Treasury probably can’t sustainably manage the debt if long interest rates get to 5% (unless inflation stays at 8%). And stocks aren’t worth the same when discounted at 5% as when discounted at 1%. I am confident the Fed will blink. Maybe not as early as I originally thought.
  • One final word and chart. 75% of the weight in the CPI are now inflating faster than 4%. More than a third of the basket is inflating faster than 6%. This is an ugly chart.
  • Thanks for tuning in. Be sure to call click or visit! https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  or https://inflationguy.podbean.com  to get the podcasts. And download the Inflation Guy app!
  • Correction here…the y/y should move up to more like 4.9%, not 4.5%.
  • Highlighting that the number today was mostly dampened by used cars…looks like Median CPI will come in something around 0.5% again. Since September it has been 0.4-0.58% and the y/y will move up to around 4.5%. So don’t get too excited (equity dudes) about the softer core.

The Federal Reserve didn’t get any favors from the Bureau of Labor Statistics today. While the core CPI number was a little below expectations, that miss was entirely due to Used Cars. But while that category was an early champion of the “transitory” crowd, the fact that used car prices are declining slightly after a massive run-up is not a sign that the broader economy is slipping into deflation! It is a sign that that particular market is getting into slightly better balance.

Don’t confuse the micro and the macro. We get wrapped up in the supply and demand thought process because that’s how it works at the micro level. When we look at a product market, we don’t see ‘money’ as being a driver. It is, because you can think about the inflation of any item as (general price inflation) plus (basis: difference in the item and overall), where that basis is driven by those microeconomic supply/demand effects. The former term drives the overall level of inflation; the micro concerns drive the relative price changes. The used car market is getting into (slightly) better balance, but other markets are getting worse. Until the overall level of money growth slows a lot, and the aggregate price changes catch up with the aggregate change in the money supply, inflation is not going to vanish no matter what happens to “aggregate demand.”

As a reminder, M2 has risen some 40% since early 2020. Subtract out net real growth, and you’d expect to see 25%-30% aggregate rise in the price level – if M2 growth went flat. That’s why I say that if the Fed wants to crush inflation, it actually needs to cause M2 to decline, not just level out at 6%. I don’t see any chance of that happening because to do it the Fed would need to remove basically all of the excess reserves and make banks reserve-constrained in lending markets so that lending declines. This seems very unlikely! So will the Fed tighten 275bps? Someday…maybe over a couple of cycles when the real damage from inflation finally wakes them up. Right now, this is a short-term problem to them. I don’t think they’re willing to take a massive market correction to solve what they believe is a short-term problem.

What Happens Next?

March 29, 2022 3 comments

As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the fetish that investors have about forecasts and predictions. When I was a strategist, clients wrangled me for a simple statement of where the market was going to go. I had my opinions, to be sure, but by the time I was a senior strategist I also knew that even good forecasters are wrong a lot. Forecasting, ironically, is not a job for people who care very much about being right. Because if they do care about being right, even good forecasters are depressed a lot.

So in my mind, a useful strategist was not one who gave all the right answers. Those don’t exist. A useful strategist was one who asked the right questions. Investing isn’t about being right; if it was, there would be no need to diversify. Just put everything in the one right investment. No, investing is about probabilities, and about maximizing the expected outcome even though that is almost never the best outcome given the particular path of events that actually transpires. Knowing the future is still the best way to make a million dollars.

A valuable strategist/forecaster, then, is not the one who can tell you what they think the actual future will be. The most valuable strategists have two strong skills. First, they excel at if-then statements. “If there is conflict in the Ukraine, then grain prices will soar.” Second, they are very good at estimating reasonable probabilities of different possibilities, so you can figure out the best average outcome of the probability-weighted if-then statements.

However, there aren’t a lot of great strategists, because those same characteristics are exactly what you need to be a good trader. I can’t remember if it was Richard Dennis or Paul Tudor Jones or some other legend who said it, but a good trader says “I don’t know what the market is going to do, but I know what I am going to do when the market does what it is going to do.”

As an investment manager/trader, that’s the way I approach investing. I don’t often engage in a post-mortem analysis about why I was wrong about how a particular chain of events played out, but I often post-mortem about whether the chain of events caused the market outcomes I expected, or not, and why.

All that being said, people keep asking me what I think happens next, so here is my guess at how the year will unfold. Feel free to disagree. I don’t really care if this is what happens, since my job is really to be prepared no matter what happens. But, you asked.

  • I suspect the conflict in Ukraine will continue for quite a while. I also think there’s a reasonable chance that other countries will take advantage of our distraction to be adventurous on other fronts. April is a key month, and I think Russia might be waiting for this other front to open up before pushing harder in Ukraine.
  • However, except inasmuch as the geopolitical uncertainty plays into the general deglobalization of trade, I don’t think about particular outcomes of Russian or Chinese adventurism. I don’t think the long-term inflation trajectory has a lot to do with who is invading who. In the short term it matters, but in the long run it means certain goods will have different relative prices compared to the market basket compared to what they have now – not that incremental inflation of those items, the rate of change of those relative prices, will continue. For example, cutting off the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe would permanently raise the relative price of nat gas in Europe, but after prices adjusted it wouldn’t permanently cause a higher level of inflation of natural gas.
  • March’s CPI print, released on April 12th, will probably be the high print for the cycle for headline inflation, at around 8.5%. Core inflation will also peak at the same time, around 6.50%. This is mainly due to tough comps, though. Monthly prints will still be running at a 4-5% rate, or higher, for at least the balance of the year, and we will end the year with core around 4.5%-5%.
  • The Fed is going to tighten again. I doubt they go 50bps at this next meeting unless the market is expressing desire for that outcome. The market sometimes fights the Fed, but the Fed these days doesn’t fight the market. The FOMC might even start reducing the mammoth balance sheet through partial runoff, but I suspect they will pocket-veto that and not do anything for a couple more months.
  • Interest rates are going to go up, further. Real interest rates are going to rise – actually, our model says that more of the rise in nominal interest rates so far should have been real rates, so TIPS are actually marginally expensive (which is very rare). Long-term inflation expectations are also going to continue to rise, until at least 3.5%…something in line with the reality of where equilibrium inflation really is now, with an option premium built in to boot.
  • Although the near-term inflation prints will come down, the increase in longer-term breakevens means that expectations of the forward price level will continue to rise. The chart below shows the level at which December 2027 CPI futures would be trading, based on the inflation curve, if some exchange actually had the courage to launch CPI futures. One year ago, the implied forward level of 310, compared to the November 2020 level of 266.229, implied that the market expected inflation from 2021-2027 to average 2.2%. That was in the thick of the “it’s transitory” baloney. Today, the theoretical futures suggest that inflation from 2021-2027 will average 3.6%, and that even ignoring the inflation we have seen so far, the price level will rise 3.25% per year above the current level over the next 5.75 years.
  • Stocks are going to decline. It is a myth, unsupported by data, that stocks do well in inflationary periods. At best, earnings of stocks may increase with inflation (and even exceed inflation in many cases since earnings are levered). But multiples always decline when real interest rates and inflation rise. Modigliani said it shouldn’t happen. But it does. And the Shiller P/E right now is around 40.
  • Then, the Fed is going to get nervous. Rising long-term inflation expectations will make the FOMC think that they should keep hiking rates, but the declining equity market will make them think that financial conditions must actually be tighter than they seem. And they’ll be afraid of causing real estate prices, which have risen spectacularly in the last couple of years, to decline as well. They will, moreover, be cognizant of the drag on growth caused by high food and energy prices, and in fact they will forecast slower growth (although it is unlikely that they will forecast the recession until it is over). And, since the Fed believes that inflation is caused by too much growth, rather than by too much money, the Committee will slow the rate hikes, pause, and possibly stop altogether. This is, of course, wrong but being wrong hasn’t stopped them so far.
  • Long rates will initially benefit from the notion that the Fed is abandoning its hawkish stance and because of ebbing growth, but then will continue higher as inflation expectations continue to rise. On the plus side, this will keep the yield curve from inverting for very long, ‘signaling a recession’, but a recession will come anyway.
  • Inflation by that point will only be down to 4-5%, but the Fed will regard what remains as ‘residual bottlenecks,’ since in their models a lack of growth puts downward pressure on inflation. They’ll stop shrinking the balance sheet, and may well start QE again if the decline in asset prices is steep enough or lasts long enough, or if real estate prices threaten to drop.

There you go – that’s my road map. I am not married to this view in any way, and am happy to discard it at any time. But I know what I am going to do when the market does what it is going to do. You should too!

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (February 2022)

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Well, here we go! It’s #CPI Day, which this month happens to fall on the day after an intraday 60-cent drop in gasoline futures. THAT will clear your sinuses!
  • Before the walkup, let me tell ya that I will be on @TDANetwork today with Nicole Petallides @Npetallides at 11:50ET. Tune in!
  • Also, when I am done with the tweets today I will post a summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . Later it will be podcasted at http://inflationguy.podbean.com. And all of that also will be linked on the Inflation Guy mobile app. Now with those preliminaries…let’s dig in.
  • We will get fresh 40-year-record highs again today, with the consensus calling for 0.8% m/m on headline (7.9% y/y) and 0.5% m/m on core (6.4% y/y).
  • The last four m/m core inflation figures have been tightly clustered from +0.523% and +0.603%, so the forecast is not terribly adventurous. There have been a few calls for hitting 8% y/y today, but I think some of those are so people can say they called for 8%.
  • We will get there next month, so no hurry.
  • That tight cluster of recent prints is really the main thrust of the story. The distribution of monthly core inflation is no longer around 0.2% per month or a little less. It’s around 0.5%. Hopefully we can get that down to 0.4% or even 0.3% eventually. But we’re not there now.
  • I should say that’s the main thrust of the CONTINUING story. This month, we have other stories courtesy of Vladimir Putin.
  • But, as a reminder, this inflation debacle started LONG before Russia invaded Ukraine. And it was committed with a worse weapon than a gun: the printing press. You can hide from a gun. You can’t hide from the printing press.
  • The Russian invasion caused disruption in the supplies of many commodities and helped spike energy prices. But remember, these are commodities. As long as Russia sells to SOMEONE, the eventual effect on energy prices will be much less than the short-term effect.
  • We covered this before with Chinese purchases of soybeans. So if Russia is constrained to only sell energy to, say, China, then China needs to buy less from, say, Saudi Arabia. Which means the Saudis have more to sell to us, or whoever previously got it from Russia.
  • Commodities are pretty similar. Part of the definition. So it disrupts the flow, but gasoline doesn’t spoil (ok, sure, it spoils, but slowly). I’m much more worried about wheat. If you don’t plant wheat this spring in the Ukraine, there will be less wheat globally for the year.
  • Now, unlike raw gasoline, which we consume in its commodity form and so shows directly in the CPI, raw food commodities don’t take the same path. Your Cheerios have oats, but they also have a lot of packaging, transportation, advertising, and so on.
  • That said, these large and sustained increases in energy affect food inflation through transportation, packaging, fertilizer too. Add to the impact of the war on planted acreage and you have the ingredients for a SUSTAINED increase in food prices for a while.
  • We usually look past food and energy, and focus on core, because food and energy mean revert pretty quickly. They won’t, this time, as quickly and that’s part of why CPI is broadening. And it’s why even after the peak, inflation won’t automatically recede on base effects.
  • Also, if energy prices spike, there is no guarantee it will affect other products so much because producers can smooth through spikes. A spike in wheat need not impact wages. But SUSTAINED increases in prices seep into those other goods and services. And they have.
  • …about wages, which is another interesting and important story. The Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker, for my money the best measure of overall wage pressure since it focuses on continuously-employed people, is up at a 5.1% y/y pace.
  • Wages by that measure have actually been tracking pretty well with Median CPI. The chart of Wages minus median CPI is weirdly stable given everything that is happening. Implication?
  • What that says is that far from “not engaging a wage-price spiral,” the labor force is actually being uber-efficient at getting their wages adjusted. On average, of course, and adjusting for median not core. Median is a better sense of the middle – not driven by used cars, e.g.!
  • Does all of the transparency, the “Indeed.coms” of the world, make it easier to have a wage-price spiral because workers adjust their wage demands more quickly with better information? I wonder.
  • Back to the market and today’s figure. Here are the market changes over the last month. Yes, 1-year inflation expectations are +150bps. 10-years are +45bps. 10-year real yields are -44bps. (No surprise, with real yields down, gold is +8% over that timeframe). This is dramatic.
  • Wanna know what scares me? This chart. Money supply growth is still at 12% y/y, which is bad. But see commercial bank credit? It’s ACCELERATING. Concerning. The Fed directly controls neither of these, when they don’t control the marginal reserve dollar.
  • Now, for the CPI today. Rents will continue to boom, and used cars may settle back slightly. There are some signs of that. But that’s the fireworks. But I am gonna watch pharmaceuticals, and food & energy, more than usual.
  • The real excitement there will be NEXT month – this is Feb’s number and the Ukraine invasion hadn’t happened yet. Whatever today’s figure shows, it will just be the jumping off point for the March spike.
  • The interbank market still has the peak headline CPI in March (March 2021 was +0.31 on core, but April was +0.86, so it will be hard to have a new high in core at least after March), but now it has that peak at 8.55%. Go ahead, gasp. It’s a gasp kind of number.
  • That’s it for the walkup. Look for weakness anywhere in the number – won’t be much of it, so relish what you find. We no longer need clues about whether inflation is coming. It’s here. We need to start finding clues about a deceleration beyond base effects. Haven’t seen any yet.

  • The economists nailed this one. 0.8% on the headline, 0.51% on core (6.42% y/y on core). Yes, all 40+ -year highs. And still pretty much in the zone. Trend core inflation is right around 6-7% at the moment.
  • As expected, used cars fell a little, -0.25% m/m. But y/y still rose, to 41.2%. Other of the “COVID Categories”: airfares +5.2% m/m, lodging away from home +2.2%, new cars/trucks +0.3%, motor vehicle insurance +1.8%, Car/truck rental +3.5%. Ouch all around.
  • (of course, since they’re covid categories, lots of people will want to strip out all of that).
  • Food & Beverage major category: +1% m/m, up to 7.62% y/y. That’s the largest y/y rise in that category of CPI since 1981.
  • Core Goods at 12.3% y/y. Core Services 4.4%.
  • Rents: OER was +0.45% and Primary Rents +0.57%. Both represent accelerations over last month. Y/Y is at 4.3% for OER and 4.2% for Primary.
  • Medical Care continues to be a conundrum. Overall, that category rose 0.17% m/m after +0.85% last month. Pharma was +0.4% and continues to be the strong one. Doctors’ Services fell again. And this month Hospital Services also fell. I don’t understand that at all.
  • Core inflation ex-housing was 7.60%. in March 2020 it was 1.49% and it fell to 0.33% in May 2020.
  • Apparel, +0.72%. Recreation +0.73% m/m. “Other” +1.06% m/m.
  • Within Food & Beverages: Food at home (8.2% of the CPI): +1.4% NSA m/m; +8.6% y/y. Food away from home: +0.4% m/m, +6.8% y/y. Alcoholic Beverages +0.9% m/m, +3.5% y/y.
  • Food at home AND food away from home both at 42-year highs.
  • drilling down, the ONLY categories of food and beverages that declined in price: Fresh Fish and Seafood, -0.70% m/m in NSA terms, Bananas, -0.10%, Lettuce -0.29%, Tomatoes -1.88%, uncooked beef steaks -0.19%, and Pork Chops -0.01%. Most of that was seasonal as y/y accelerated.
  • Early guess at Median CPI is +0.54% m/m, which is down only slightly from last month’s spike. That median is now looking like core is what tells you that this isn’t just one-off categories.
  • Incidentally, my median estimate might be low…the median categories look to be the regional housing OERs, which the Cleveland Fed seasonally adjusts separately. I’m more likely to be low the way the chips fell. Either way, Median at 4.60% is really disturbing.
  • Let’s do the four pieces charts. First, Food & Energy. Unlike prior spikes, this is going to roll over more slowly. The rate of change will mean-revert. But the food part I think will remain a positive inflation contributor for much longer than normal (prices will keep rising).
  • Core goods. Nothing much to say. This is beyond automobiles. Part of this is pass-through of energy prices (via freight, packaging), so it’s a non-core effect on core. Some are bottlenecks. None look to be easing in the near-term.
  • This chart, piece 3, is interesting because about a quarter of this is doctors’ and hospital services, which have been pretty tame so far. And yet, it’s almost at 4%.
  • Finally, Rent of Shelter. Almost at 5%. So actually, the core-services piece is holding down inflation now…not shelter. Remember that shelter is the big, slow piece. Some people are calling for OER at 7%. I don’t get that from my models. But still, it’s going higher.
  • …and rents are part of the wage-price feedback loop. (Remember that the dip in 2021 was largely artificial because of the eviction moratorium, and everyone knew it, which is why it didn’t change wage demands much).
  • Almost 80% of the consumption basket is inflating faster than 4%. About a third is inflating faster than 6%.
  • At least by one set of models, the OER rise may be cresting soon. I’m a little skeptical but that’s what the model says. However, it’s not going to turn around and drop, which means core inflation will be high for a while. Not just 2022.
  • So I said to look for evidence of deceleration. There’s not much. But there’s a LITTLE. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index declined to 35 from 41. That’s not a lot, but it’s in the right direction.
  • So wrapping up: there’s no real sign of any ebbing of inflation pressures. In fact, there are some signs that food inflation will stay elevated for longer than the normal oscillation cycle. But we are closer to the end of the spike, anyway, than to the beginning.
  • Core inflation will likely peak next month, and headline inflation in the next couple of months. That’s good. But we’re not going to go back to 2%. Right now, the monthly prints point to an underlying core rate around 6%. I suspect we will end 2022 in the 5s, or high 4s.
  • If there’s any chance to get to the 3s in 2023, it would be because the Fed starts to shrink its balance sheet with some urgency. I see zero chance of that.
  • In fact, as I’ve long said – the Fed is not going to tighten at every meeting. They’ll have excuses to skip meetings and assess.
  • For example, although Russia/Ukraine has nothing to do with monetary policy, it took 50bps off the table for this month – we will get a 25bp cosmetic hike in rates – and probably means they skip next meeting. And then once inflation peaks they’ll want to see how fast it ebbs.
  • Don’t want to overtighten, you know. The net result is that inflation is getting embedded in our psyche and it will be very long until we get 2-3% core inflation on a regular basis.
  • That’s all for today. Thanks for tuning in. Catch me on @TDANetwork at 11:50ET and look for my tweet summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com . Curious what tools we’re working on in inflation? Stop by http://enduringinvestments.com . Subscribe to my podcast. https://inflationguy.podbean.com Etcetera!

Core inflation for the last 5 months has been in a tight range suggesting 6%-7% is the underlying trend rate; this started long before Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion means that food inflation will take longer to ebb than it usually does, as not only are we getting pass-through from the extended period of high energy prices (affecting freight, packaging, and fertilizer) but we’re also seeing plantings in Ukraine likely to be disrupted. But it isn’t just food and energy, but everything across the board. A plurality of the consumption basket is inflating faster than 6%!

And this is seeping into wages, and quite quickly at that. Wages are actually adjusting to the level of unemployment more quickly than history would suggest they should be. Based on where unemployment was 9 months ago, the Atlanta Fed Wage Growth Tracker should be around 3.5%. Based on where unemployment is now, it should be around 5%. It’s already there.

I showed a chart earlier illustrating that wages are not trailing inflation in the way that we normally expect that they would. Workers, possibly because there’s been so much turnover thanks to COVID and possibly because of the transparency of wages these days, are getting wage adjustments that keep them about where they historically have been with respect to inflation. That’s remarkable, but also problematic if there is anything to the “wage-price-spiral” thought process.

But at the end of the day I still don’t think the Fed is willing to move fast and break things. In the classroom, the Taylor Rule says they are dramatically behind the curve and should be hiking rates. Of course, the classroom also says that they should do that by adjusting reserves, which they no longer do, so the textbook is clearly flexible. But in the real world, Fed moves do not happen on paper and they don’t just move prices and output. They also crack over-levered entities and cause financial distress in unexpected places that leads to other bad things. The Fed has “learned” this over the years and it’s one of many reasons that I don’t think we’re going to see 200bps of tightening. And probably not 100bps of tightening, in 2022. They will be cautious, measure-twice-cut-once, speak sagely and calmly in the press conferences, and hope to God that they haven’t really messed it all up.

They have.

Anatomy of a Monetary Policy Error

Well, it isn’t as if no one warned that monetary policymakers were eventually going to get painted into a corner. Long before the Covid crisis, there were many voices warning that the Fed’s tendency to ease aggressively, but to find excuses to tighten slowly, would eventually get them into trouble. And here we are.

The Federal Reserve, prior to the Ukraine/Russia war, had started to talk hawkishly about raising interest rates; that talk, combined with 40-year highs in core inflation, persuaded Wall Street economists that the Fed would raise interest rates by more than 200bps this year.

That was never going to happen, even if Russia had not invaded Ukraine. Not since the early 1980s has there been a tightening cycle of at least 200bps over 10 months that also ended with the overnight rate above where the 10-year rate had been at the beginning of that period. So the calls for 200bps of tightening with the 10-year rate under 2% was always an incredibly aggressive call. Moreover, those cycles where it did happen occurred in an era when the Fed Chairman didn’t go in front of the cameras every meeting to explain why the Fed was ‘trying to increase unemployment’ – and, in fact, back in those days almost no one outside of the financial community paid much attention to the Fed at all. Plus financial leverage, ancient source of dramatic accidents, was much lower then. So my operating assumption has always been that the Fed would probably tighten about 3 times this year, pausing in between each hike…or maybe hiking 4 times and then easing once. Especially since the Fed no longer controls the marginal reserve dollar (there being copious excess reserves), the effect of monetary policy moves is less clear…and this also mitigates in favor of taking time to assess the effect of policy moves by watching the economy evolve. Ergo, this tightening cycle was always destined to be late and halting, and focused on interest rates rather than on money supply. Such a trajectory already qualifies as a ‘mistake’ when inflation is threatening 8%.

But now there’s even more room for error. Because the skyrocketing energy prices trigger another mistaken belief at the Fed, which enhances the desire to tighten even slower/later.

The Fed thinks that rapid energy price increases have this effect on the economy: rapid increases in energy prices tends to cause slow growth or recession as those increases consume discretionary income and leave less for non-energy purchases. And recession causes a decrease in pressure on other resources, such as labor. Which, in turn, leads to lower pressure on core inflation. Since energy prices are mean-reverting (at least, the rate of change is!), the central bank is “supposed” to ignore inflation that is caused by energy price increases, since if they tighten according to some Taylor-Rule-like dictum then they’ll tighten into a recession and increase the amplitude of the business cycle. Ergo, the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that the Fed should tighten less.

However, that’s not the way this works.

Rapid increases in energy prices do in fact tend to cause recession. But inflation is not caused by too little economic slack, and disinflation is not caused by too much slack. Inflation is caused by money growth, period, and M2 money growth is currently above 12%. It is true that an increase in energy prices would lead to a decline in non-energy discretionary spending, which would limit core inflation, if money growth was low. But if money growth is high, the increase in energy prices just rearranges the relative price changes because there is plenty of money to go around. It doesn’t change the overall impact of the rapid money growth. (Small caveat: a scary recession would increase the demand for precautionary cash balances, lowering money velocity…but people are already holding such precautionary balances so it’s hard to see how that could be a large effect from this level). Ergo, when the Fed slows down its tightening campaign because of the way they believe inflation works, and especially if they decide to not shrink the balance sheet – because “higher long-term rates would be bad in a recession” – they won’t have any real effect on growth but they’ll be accommodating a much higher level of inflation.

And just like that, you have it. The genesis of a really colossal monetary policy error. Get ready.

The Coming Peak in Inflation (and Why You Should Hold Off on the Party)

January 17, 2022 1 comment

Get ready for it: over the next month or two, the vast majority of stories on inflation – at least, in outlets that are friendly to bullish interests – will remark on the 40-year highs in inflation but append the following phrase:

“But economists expect inflation to moderate in the months ahead.”

This is meant to do two things, if you’re a PhD economist or a market observer with a BA in Art History (the difference in prognosticative ability between these two groups is remarkably slim). First, it is meant to be a soothing reminder that inflation is just a passing fad and nothing to worry about. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… Second, it is meant to demonstrate the powerful insights that the speaker commands. Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

But the contribution of this pronouncement is small. The reason that “inflation will moderate” in the months ahead is simply due to base effects. The table below shows the monthly CPI (seasonally adjusted, headline) prints from 2021, which will be “replaced” in the y/y figures over the next year. The numbers in red all represent inflation which, if annualized, would be 7.7% or higher.

Some of these high prints are driven by energy prices, which are historically mean-reverting, and some are also driven by spikes in “Covid categories” (most famously, used cars). And so most economists’ forecasts project a return to what the economist considers to be the “underlying run rate” of inflation. To illustrate this, look at the chart below. There are two lines. One, the blue line, represents what the y/y headline inflation rate would be each month if we simply naïvely replace every year-ago figure that is “dropping off” with 0.333%. Y/Y inflation is roughly flat for a couple of months since 0.33% is roughly what Jan and Feb 2021 saw; then it starts to fall sharply as we drop off 0.62%, 0.77%, 0.64%, and 0.90%. In fact, if we printed 0.333% on headline every month for the next year, Y/Y CPI would decline in every month except for two of the next 12.

The other line in the chart, in red, shows what is currently being priced in the market. You can see that not much more thought goes into market pricing than goes into economists’ forecasts!

Here’s the critical, salient point. Every forecast ends up showing this mean reversion because the usual way of doing projections naturally ignores unknown unknowns. From the top down, we have to choose something to replace last year’s number and the natural assumption is that the “top down” guess hasn’t moved terribly far from the prior guess (in the case of headline inflation, something like 2.0-2.5%; for 2022 maybe they’ll throw in 3.5% or 4% ebbing to 2%-2.5% in 2023). And from the bottom-up, we know what went up (for example, the spike in used car prices) and we also know that the rate of change of that item will eventually ebb. We’ve known that about used cars for a while. It hasn’t ebbed yet, confounding many, but it will. But do you know what else happened, the unknown unknown, that was not forecast back when everyone was thinking headline inflation would decline into the end of 2021? The acceleration in new car price inflation!

Indeed, one of the reasons that people thought that used car inflation would slow down and even that used car prices might decline is that used car prices were in some cases exceeding the prices of new cars, which is an obvious absurdity. But surprise! Due to “a chip shortage”, or the problem getting foam for seat cushions, or any one of a half-dozen other reasons – but perhaps also due to excessive government largesse – new car prices are now rising at 12% y/y. That was an unforecast “unknown unknown” early last year, and it is one reason that headline inflation ended the year at 7% rather than at 3%. Okay, so there was a “reason” for this surprise. But if you as an economist didn’t see that coming, what makes you think that you will see the next one…or that there won’t be a next one?

Rob Arnott used to make a similar point about corporate earnings. He pointed out that while the “extraordinary items” for any given company, which gets magically discounted when they report their “earnings before bad stuff,” may be a legitimate way to think about the profitability of that company going forward, for the stock market as a whole the amount of “extraordinary items” shouldn’t be discounted since someone is always having a surprise. It’s a surprise in the micro sense, but not in the macro sense. Surprises happen. Similarly, with inflation: we see economists decay away the surprises that have happened, while ignoring the possibility of other surprises.

If the distribution of those other surprises was random – some of them “inflationary” surprises and some of them “disinflationary” surprises, then this could make sense. The errors would be unbiased and so a forecast that ignores them would be less-volatile then reality, but not necessarily a bad “most-likely” guess. But in this case, the errors are likely to be on the high side because money growth remains around 12-13% per annum. Guessing that overall inflation is going to head back to 1.5%-2.5% over the next year or two is simply a bad guess. That it will decline from 7% is a high likelihood, but not exactly insightful.

There is a context in which this observation can be a useful contribution: by reminding the listener that when they see inflation decelerate in the months ahead, it doesn’t mean anything we don’t already know, a statement about the likelihood of declining year/year inflation can be helpful. This is the baseline forecast; only deviations from the expected path are worth reacting to.

And for my money, those deviations are more likely to be above the forecast curve than below it.

And Then There’s the Fed

By the way, if the most-recent inflation numbers were basically as-expected…and they were pretty much right on expectations…then why are Fed officials suddenly sounding more hawkish? An as-expected number shouldn’t change your views, unless your expectations were non-consensus. That seems unlikely when it comes to the flock of Econ PhDs who inhabit the Eccles Building.

I think the reason the Fed is sounding more hawkish isn’t because anything has changed recently – it hasn’t – but because they think we need to hear that hawkishness right now. It’s like a parent thinking that the kids “need” a stern talking-to. The kids, somehow, never think so.

As a Fed official, if you talk tough now you create several possible good outcomes. You might “re-anchor” inflation expectations by persuading investors and consumers that the Fed is determined to restrain inflation. It seems unlikely, given how often they talked in 2020 about having the tools to be able to prevent inflation – and then neither using the tools nor preventing inflation – that they’d get much mileage from that tack but it’s a free option. Or, you might be able to nudge market expectations in such a way that an actual hawkish turn won’t be as damaging as it historically has been. Or, to be cynical, one might think that a Fed speaker wants to get stern in front of the coming ‘base effects’ ebb, so that it looks to the gawkers in the cheap seats like they moved inflation by merely talking about it. And, in the worst case, you can back off the tough talk before you actually have to do anything.

I think there are a lot of reasons that the Fed is not going to be hawkish in any traditional sense; they’re not going to restrain money supply growth by shrinking the balance sheet and squeezing bank reserves (even if they wanted to, that margin is very far away), and they’re not going to raise interest rates in anything like the aggressiveness of a traditional tightening cycle – partly because they won’t be able to stomach the wealth effect of the market reaction to sharply higher discount rates, partly because sharply higher interest rates would cause big problems with the federal budget deficit going forward, and partly because they have convinced themselves that inflation is currently just ‘paying back’ a long period of being ‘too low’ (whatever that means). For now, expect them to aggressively and triumphantly forecast that “inflation will moderate in the months ahead.”

But you know the truth.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (December 2021)

January 12, 2022 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Welcome to the first #CPI Day of 2022 (although technically it’s really the last of 2021 since we’re releasing December #inflation figures). Exciting times, as headline inflation might sport a 7% handle and core inflation definitely will be well above 5% y/y.
  • The last three numbers have been so broad, so worrisome OUTSIDE of the “Covid Categories”, that even the Federal Reserve is saying the right things. Will they really hike rates 4 times this year? I’m skeptical but we will see.
  • Core CPI for October and November were 0.599% and 0.535% m/m, respectively…but most importantly, there wasn’t a clear outlier causing these jumps. Median inflation, which is unaffected by those tails, has had three straight months above 0.45% (5.4% annualized).
  • Not only the Fed, but also the market, is finally starting to listen a little. This chart shows the changes from 1 month ago for real rates, inflation expectations, and nominal rates. All higher from mid-December.
  • But the theme from economists over the next few months – brace for it – will be “But economists expect inflation to moderate in the months ahead.” You’ll see this everywhere.
  • That’s because after easy year-ago comps for the next 3 months, they get difficult in April-June. So, while core inflation should get to 6% in early Q2, the y/y numbers PROBABLY won’t get worse than that (in 2022).
  • So, mix that story with “see, the Fed is serious and inflation is already coming down” and you’ll get the touts for stonks going in full force. Don’t worry, be happy. Buy the stuff that Wall Street needs to sell. Etc.
  • And there IS some good news. For example, the rate of increase in overland truckload rates is declining. Still high, but declining. Since trucking goes into all kinds of goods, it’s often a leader of the rate of change (not always).
  • Similarly, some modest good news from global shipping rates, which are down from their highs although edging back up a little (chart shows east-west container rates).
  • but … Other than those big base effects in April/May/June, there’s not a lot of reason to think the m/m #inflation figures will drop down to 0.15-0.2 again.
  • Going forward there will be a peak…but won’t be as serious as you think. We can all imagine used cars fading eventually. But no one bothers to imagine what will go up. So if you forecast a reversion to the mean for the first and ignore the second, of COURSE you forecast a peak.
  • Example: what about insurance? President Biden’s latest plan is to force insurance companies to provide 8 free COVID tests per person per month. Ignore whether the tests exist, but … Who do you think pays for that? Insurance company? Nope. More policy error.
  • What about China re-shutting some parts of its economy due to Omicron? Remember, (as I wrote in February 2020): “COVID-19 in China is a Supply Shock to the World” https://inflationguy.blog/2020/02/25/covid-19-in-china-is-a-supply-shock-to-the-world/ This is not policy error, just bad luck. But bad luck happens.
  • Last month I said “This is not about the pandemic any longer; it is about policy response to the pandemic. It is almost entirely policy error.” I feel strongly about this. While there is tough talk on this from the Fed, let’s see if it’s followed by tough action.
  • I’m concerned about that, since the Fed is still getting the story wrong. Powell says higher labor costs are not driving inflation. Well – that’s because labor costs generally FOLLOW inflation. Labor pushes when they see their own cost of living going up. Not before.
  • And thanks to workers’ pricing power, wage increases should rise around another 1% y/y by Q3, based on the current unemployment rate (green). This is good news for workers, bad news for consumers. Wages don’t cause inflation but they DO give it momentum.
  • So inflation will peak around April, but core will ebb to maybe 4%, not 2%.
  • Back to today’s number. Consensus is 0.4%/0.5% headline/core for the month and 7.0%/5.4% y/y. The ‘inside market’ is really 0.46-0.52 on core. The interbank market has the headline figure reaching 7.03%.
  • But remember this is December, and there are lots of weird seasonals, so anything can happen.
  • We are still watching rents, which should remain solid for a while here. Catching up from the end of the eviction moratorium, but there’s still plenty of heat in the housing market generally. And amazingly, we’re still watching used cars.
  • Here’s a chart of the level of used car prices. Not exactly collapsing! I mean, wow! I don’t know anyone who thought we’d get another leg higher.
  • And even the rate of change is reaching new highs. So we will likely get another push in the CPI from used autos, and new cars as well since they’re a substitute.
  • But most important in today’s #CPI remains the breadth. That’s the main focus today. If we get 0.7% but it’s all used cars, that’s not nearly as significant as if we get 0.4% and there are no outliers at all. That has been the recent story and I expect it to continue.
  • Good luck!  I will have a summary of all my tweets at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  sometime mid-morning and then I plan to put out an Inflation Guy podcast  (https://inflationguy.podbean.com) sometime today. Like, click subscribe, all that.
  • Also look for the Inflation Guy app in your app store (once we get enough users we will probably do livestreams to those users, rather than on Twitter).
  • And finally, book your free place at the Institutional Fixed Income Virtual Summit on January 22nd. https://lnkd.in/dab2WfEP
  • Hey! I finished with the walk-up early. Still time to grab a coffee. Number in 7 minutes.

  • A bit higher than expected 0.5%/0.6% on core. Headline did get to 7%, core hit 5.5%. Bloomberg kinda slow-rolling the seasonally-adjusted core number so  don’t know the 2nd digit yet.
  • OK, here we go. The seasonally-adjusted core number, m/m, was 0.5501. So it just BARELY squeaked out the 0.6%. Still, higher than expected but not drastically.
  • Jumping out at me is the 1.72% rise in Apparel prices m/m. Apparel is only 2.7% of the basket but has been in deflation for years, punctuated by occasional attempts at price increases. Right now Apparel is +5.8% y/y. Some of that is likely shipping b/c apparel isn’t made here.
  • Used Cars, true to form, +3.5% m/m after +2.5% last month. Y/Y up to 37.3%. New cars +1% m/m.
  • Overall, core goods and services continue to look…um…disturbing?
  • Here is core services by itself. 4% looks like the big level. However, it’s no longer the case that this inflation is all about goods. Ergo, it isn’t all about supply chain.
  • OK in the COVID categories, 1.18% m/m from lodging away from home; +2.72% m/m from airfares. Car and truck RENTAL though was -5.3% m/m. That’s only 0.13% of CPI though!
  • Rents: Primary rents +0.39%, 3.33% y/y. That’s slightly lower than the last couple of months but still pretty hot. Owners’ Equivalent Rent +0.40%, 3.79% y/y. Ditto – lower but still hot. 4.8% annualized from a third of core would make it hard to get core back to 2%!
  • Medical Care was +0.28% m/m. But Pharma (+0.01%), Doctors’ Services (-0.05%), and Hospital Services (+0.16%) were all lower. Which means it came from insurance.
  • Here is medical insurance, y/y. Up 1.6% m/m. Medical insurance is a residual in the CPI (not directly calculated), but this is where added costs to insurance companies is showing up.
  • So core inflation at 5.5% is still “the highest since 1991”, but starting next month it will probably be “the highest since 1982” since the 1991 high was 5.6%.
  • Vehicle insurance (-16.8% one-month change, annualized) and Car and Truck Rental (-48%) were the only core categories that fell more than 10% annualized.
  • Categories that ROSE >10% annualized: Jewelry/Watches (+59%),Used Cars/Trucks(+51%),Womens/Girls Apparel(+30%),Public Transport(+26%),Motor Vehicle Parts/Equip (+21%),Footwear(+20%),Lodging Away from Home(+15%),Household Furnishings(+14%),Mens/Boys Apparel(+14%),New Cars(12%)
  • I am afraid this also looks like we are going to have another 0.45% or so on Median inflation. Hard to tell b/c regional OERs are the median categories it looks like, so it might be as low as 0.38% but unlikely I think.
  • Core ex-housing is +6.4% y/y. It’s worth remembering that core is currently being pulled DOWN by rents.
  • Folks, grab the reins on the change in the CPI weightings. They are a totally normal biannual thing. The changes will be larger this time than normal because consumption patterns changed – but there’s no conspiracy. Consumption patterns DID change. That’s all that’s happening.
  • Stories remain approximately the same for the four-pieces charts. The first is Food & Energy – most volatile, and the best chance for dropping the y/y headline number. But still, pretty ugly and this likely affects wage negotiations as people pay more for food and gas!
  • Core goods – a chunk is new and used autos. And there is upward pressure from shipping and trucking rates. But those are ebbing a little. This will eventually come back to earth, on a rate of change basis, but that doesn’t mean the price LEVELS will decline.
  • Core services ex-rents. This is still looking a little perky although not breaking to new highs like a lot of the rest of the index. Medical Care is actually holding down inflation. But uptick in health insurance is concerning.
  • Rent of Shelter – totally expected if you’ve been watching housing. Still has more to go! Again, it’s going to be hard to get core CPI back to 2% while rents are running 4-5% or more.
  • Slight good news on distribution. The weight of the consumption basket that’s inflating more-slowly than 3% is back above 25%!
  • OK, one more chart and then a quick wrap-up. Remember later to check out the summary at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  and look for the podcast version of it at https://inflationguy.podbean.com
  • I said the most important part of this report was the breadth. And it was again a very broad report; Median CPI will again be around 0.4%-0.5%. The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index reached a modest new high.
  • There is nothing in today’s number that suggests the underlying inflation pressures are ebbing. The y/y change will eventually come down because the comps will get more difficult, but there is NO SIGN that core will be dropping back to 2%.
  • My base case is that we end 2022 with something like a 4% core inflation rate. Could be as low as 3.5%, but the potential miss on the upside is larger than that.
  • The Fed is talking tough, but talk is cheap. They’re still easing at this hour! Eventually they’ll stop digging the hole. When will they start filling it in – not by raising rates which has small effect if any on inflation, but by selling bonds? Don’t hold your breath.
  • I think they’ll raise rates once or twice, maybe even thrice if bond and stock markets don’t seem to mind. But eventually, they’ll mind because discount rates matter. When that happens, I can’t imagine the Fed keeps sticking the knife in.
  • We have Volcker-like inflation, but we have no Volcker.
  • And that’s the problem. Thanks for tuning in! If you’re curious about what we do at Enduring Investments, come by http://enduringinvestments.com and say hi. I do these tweet storms for many reasons – but some of those reasons are commercial! See you soon.

This was, sadly, not a very surprising report. Inflationary pressures remain broad and deep, and the Fed today is still purchasing bonds and adding more reserves to the system. The FOMC is in a bit of a pickle since they labored so long under the false “inflation is transitory” story. The fact that they couldn’t foresee that the natural consequence of massive fiscal stimulus financed by massive monetary stimulus would be inflation is mind-boggling, but it does seem that they really did think that inflation was transitory and caused by supply-chain issues. Amazing.

So now, they’re behind the curve and really need to catch up and get ahead of this process. The inflation mindset is becoming entrenched (and I think already has), and all the Fed can do is talk about how they’re going to be gradual, gradual, a few hikes this year; maybe they’ll eventually think about shrinking the balance sheet; please don’t panic please don’t panic please don’t panic. But the slower the Fed goes, the harder they’ll have to squeeze liquidity to get inflation out of the system. And that will break a few eggs.

Volcker was not afraid to break some eggs. He saw that it was better to break eggs now than to be unable to afford eggs tomorrow. I do not currently see anyone at the Federal Reserve, or in central banking circles generally, made of that stern stuff. Ask me what inflation this year will be and I will say 4-5% on core. Ask me what it will be next year and I’ll say, probably about the same. Ask me what inflation will be in 2025 and I will say…

Do you have a Volcker? Because if not, we’re Volcked.

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (October 2021)

November 10, 2021 1 comment

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Hello #CPI Day. Is it my imagination or do these keep getting better? Today we should see a 31-year high in headline inflation and the second-highest Core #inflation in 30 years. And, honestly, there’s a chance we break June’s high on core.
  • It actually doesn’t matter much if we move to 30-year highs on core this month because it will certainly happen over the next few. We are entering the easy-comparison part of the year. Oct ’20 through Feb ’21 had a CUMULATIVE 0.42% on core CPI.
  • And it isn’t just core. Last month, the theme of broadening price pressures took a big step forward as MEDIAN CPI had the largest m/m jump since 1990.
  • A lot of that has to do with rents, which are starting now to catch up after the lifting of the eviction moratorium. As expected. There is a lot more to go on rents.
  • So the underlying themes this month are the same as they have been recently: broadening pressures and less attention on the one-off COVID categories…although…
  • There will be plenty of volatile noise – that’s not going away soon, and it will contribute to inflation expectations since people encode price volatility as increase. Food inflation will probably be the highest in a decade.
  • Wholesale gasoline has risen 10 months in a row. Hey, how long has Biden been President, roughly? I mean, counting his naps? (Sorry, that’s piling on and a 15-yard penalty.)
  • Used cars (and new cars) are also a risk this month. Last couple of months, used cars were a drag as the spike was fading. Not so much. Private surveys are spiking again. We probably see that this month, “a chunky amount”. Here is the Black Book survey.
  • And here is the change, vs the CPI for used cars, lagged. You never know about the lags though.
  • Now, policymakers are expressing the opinion that the very high inflation numbers we are seeing now will fade later in 2022. They’re right. There are some signs here and there that certain bottlenecks are easing.
  • The inflation noise is going to gradually lessen. Unfortunately that means we’re seeing more of the SIGNAL, which remains strong. Pressures OUTSIDE of the ‘reopening categories’ are broad. So core inflation will stay high (just not THIS high, probably) through 2022.
  • And as shortages get resolved, they’ll likely resolve at HIGHER prices, not lower. See my article “Shortages are Unmeasured Inflation.”
  • & the causal elements remain. The Fed is tapering but credit growth has been hot.The idea banks are being stingy w/ credit is either false, or they’re being replaced by non-banks. M2 growth is down to ~13%, but that’s still WAY too fast. Especially as velocity recovers.
  • Onto this month’s report: the Street is expecting a soft +0.4% on core, which would be the highest since June. I kinda think that’s the best case unless OER and Rents abruptly slow down again. Last month’s 0.24% on core only happened because the one-offs pulled it DOWN.
  • The interbank inflation derivatives market has y/y headline hitting 5.94% today, breaking to 6.5% next month, and staying over 6% until April. (Some of that is due to base effects in energy and core.)
  • I expect Rents to continue to move higher. Looking for that, & watching Median CPI. It’s at 2.42% y/y and will be higher this month; will be over 3% before very long. That’s where I think everything ends up settling out, late in 2022: 3.5%ish. Not as bad as now…but not good!
  • Good luck this morning. I will have a summary of all my tweets at https://mikeashton.wordpress.com sometime mid-morning and then I plan to put out an Inflation Guy podcast (https://inflationguy.podbean.com ) sometime today. And let me take a moment this month to say: Thank you Veterans.

  • Welp. Golly. 0.60% m/m on core CPI, putting the y/y up to 4.58%. A new 30-year high! And easy comparisons still to come…
  • So let’s see. Used cars +2.5% m/m, which we sort of expected. OER +0.44% m/m, and Primary Rents +0.42%, which we sort of expected.
  • Apparel? 0.00% m/m. Which means all the other 7 major subcategories contributed. Recreation +0.69%. Medical Care +0.50%. Housing +0.72%. Food/Bev 0.84%. Other +0.85%. Educ/Communication only +0.16%. Transportation +2.37%. Broad.
  • Airfares: -0.66% m/m. But lodging away from home +1.35%. If you consider used cars a covid category (I don’t), then covid still net adding to this number. But then, everything was.
  • New cars +1.36% m/m after +1.30% last month. Used car prices can’t be above new car prices for long – but one way to resolve that is new car prices up, not just used car prices down.
  • Car and truck rental +3.1% after -2.9%.
  • In Medical Care, “Medicinal Drugs” +0.59% m/m. It is still down y/y, but is this a sign up upward pressure in a category that has been soft for a while?
  • Doctors’ Services flat, but Hospital Services +0.45% m/m, up to 4.04% y/y. I wonder if laying off lots of unvaccinated nurses will lower prices for health care? Hmmm. Guessing no.
  • Overall Core Goods rose back up to 8.4%. But more disturbing is core Services jumping to 3.2%. Again, a lot of that is in rents.
  • Food prices y/y up at 5.33%.
  • Oh my. Oh my oh my. My first guess at median CPI is +0.57% m/m. That would EASILY be the highest since 1982 if I’m right.
  • The really scary thing is that I’m looking for a big outlier. And I can’t really find one.
  • Postage and delivery services were up +3.87% m/m. But that’s 0.11% of the CPI. Cigarettes +2.08%, but that’s 0.53% of the CPI. Health Insurance +1.99%, and that’s 1.2% of the CPI. Airline Fares, +3.5%, but 0.6% of the CPI.
  • The only category that declined more than 10% annualized was Jewelry and Watches (-26% annualized m/m). There were 19 that ROSE more than 10% annualized.
  • Core CPI ex-shelter back up to 5.35%. Sure, a lot of that is autos. But you kinda want that to go down especially when shelter itself…
  • OER is catching up to the model…but the model is running away from it too.
  • Here are the four-pieces. Piece 1, food and energy. Highest since just before the GFC.
  • Piece 2 – Core goods. Near the highest since 1981 (only the bump in June was higher).
  • Piece 3: Core services less rent of shelter. At last! Something that isn’t near 30-40 year highs. But these are the slower-moving pieces. Maybe it’s because they haven’t had time yet to adjust…
  • Piece 4. Rent of Shelter. The part everyone was hoping wouldn’t follow home prices and asking rents. Sorry about that. It’ll shortly be at 30-year highs too.
  • So this is starting to be less-subtle. Last month’s distribution of y/y changes vs this month (“OCT”). Left tail vanishing. Right tail growing. And whole middle shifting to the right. Not subtle. Not isolated.
  • Here is the weighting of components of CPI that is inflating faster than 4% y/y. Almost 40% of the entire basket.
  • 10y breakevens +5bps on the day to 2.69%. But that’s okay, Secretary Yellen tells us there’s no way that inflation expectations get unanchored.
  • I suppose it should be no surprise that the Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index has reached an all-time high.
  • OK, let’s sum up. Different month, same story. There is still noise associated with “shutdown categories” and specific bottlenecks. But the underlying “signal” of inflation is getting stronger, as the pressures get broader. You can’t blame all of this on Long Beach.
  • Those pressures don’t come from the bottlenecks and shortages. They come from the fact that people can afford to pay higher prices because there’s more money in the system. Here is a chart of personal income vs GDP. Demand and supply. Where did the difference come from???
  • This ain’t rocket science. If you want the fire to stop, remove the oxygen. Oh, wait, actually that IS rocket science. Like, actual rocket science.
  • The Fed is finally slowing the rapid increase of its balance sheet. Be still my heart. Honestly, I don’t think they’ll even finish the taper, much less start to raise rates. Especially under Brainard. So buckle up. Lock in long-term contract prices.
  • I need to go take a shower. As much as the trajectory of inflation makes it fun to be “Inflation Guy,” this is monetary malpractice and it’s disgusting. This didn’t have to happen. Sorry. That probably shouldn’t be tweeted.
  • Anyway – the beatings will continue until morale improves!
  • Thanks for tuning in. There will be a tweet summary on https://mikeashton.wordpress.com  in a little while.And I’ll drop a podcast later today. Interested in the new strategy we’ve launched, or want to work with us to launch one for your clients? Go to https://enduringinvestments.com & contact us.

Seriously, this month’s report – while expected, at some level – turns my stomach. We have learned these lessons, painfully, long ago: you can’t spend in an out-of-control fashion and you can’t print the money that you’re spending. That’s fiscal policy 101 and monetary policy 101. Flunk them all, I say.

The good news is that we no longer need to argue about whether or not inflation is coming. It’s here. We don’t need to argue about whether inflation will broaden beyond the re-opening categories. It has. The only questions are: how much? For how long? And how do we stop it? The third question we already know the answer to: restrain money growth; even shrink the money supply if velocity continues to rebound. No, that’s not against the rules. But it is against current monetary orthodoxy, which regards no particularly interesting role for the quantity of money. Flunk them all, I say.

The answers to the first two questions, how much and for how long, depend on how long it takes for policymakers to change course. On the fiscal side, there seems to be growing resistance to the idea that you can spend any amount of money because you can always print a trillion-dollar coin. But there are still some who profess to believe that if you spend more, you can solve bottlenecks by improving infrastructure. Maybe, if this was about infrastructure. But it’s not. It about spending in an out-of-control fashion and printing the money that you’re spending. On the monetary side, our choices seem to be another ride with Chairman Powell – who is the one who brung us to this party and I don’t really want to dance with him – or Lael Brainard, who thinks Powell has been too hawkish.

Do you see the problem?

Summary of My Post-CPI Tweets (September 2021)

October 13, 2021 2 comments

Below is a summary of my post-CPI tweets. You can (and should!) follow me @inflation_guy. Or, sign up for email updates to my occasional articles here. Investors, issuers and risk managers with interests in this area be sure to stop by Enduring Investments! Get the Inflation Guy app in your app store! Check out the Inflation Guy podcast!

  • Here we are, #CPI Day again – where did that month go!? – And everyone is gathered around for the number. So many interested people! So many experts on inflation suddenly!
  • Last night, @TuckerCarlson led his show with a monologue re inflation. And he got it basically right, which is unusual for nonfinancial media. But the point is, “transitory” inflation is now important enough to get the lead on one of the biggest cable opinion shows in the world.
  • Which of course is why there are so many experts suddenly. Demand creates its own supply. But I am not complaining. There’s only one Inflation Guy and he has his own podcast https://inflationguy.podbean.com and app (in your app/play store)! [Editor’s Note: See the last bullet]
  • More importantly some regional Fed folks are starting to sound queasy. Atlanta Fed’s Bostic and St. Louis Fed President Bullard. The NY Times! The Wall Street Journal! The Poughkeepsie News-Gazette! Made up that last one but it’s everywhere.
  • Not the Chairman though, and not the Treasury Secretary, both of whom want the same thing: more money. Who was it? In the Volunteers with Tom Hanks I think: Mo money means mo power.
  • Meanwhile 1y and 3y expectations in the Consumer Expectations Survey are at all time highs since the inception of the survey in 2013. Which of course is why Carlson is leading with it. Consumers are noticing.
  • Are they only noticing because of used cars? Seems unlikely. They’re noticing broader pressures, which we are starting to see and still will be watching for in this report.
  • Speaking of used cars…while the rate of change might come down on some of these spikes, there’s no sign the LEVEL is retracing. See latest Black Book survey. “Holding steady” around 30% y/y. But that’s down from 50% in May.
  • Consumers are also noticing shortages, which is unmeasured inflation. If you put a price cap below equilibrium, you get shortages. And if you get shortages, you can presume the equilibrium price is higher. Repeat: Shortages are Unmeasured Inflation
  • Now, there’s good news. Delays at China ports are down. Although some of this is seasonal and some is due to the fact that…all the ships are sitting in OUR ports. But there is SOME good news anyway. Had to search for it.
  • Question going forward is how much of the pressure on suppliers gets passed through. It will be more (a) the longer it lasts, and (b) the more suppliers see others passing along costs. And profit season is about to start, where we will hear some of those answers.
  • In this CPI report today: the Street is expecting a very tame +0.2% on core, after a soft +0.1% last month. That seems very, very optimistic to me. If we get +0.27%, the y/y core rate will uptick to 4.1%.
  • And AFTER this, the comps are terribly easy so core inflation will be moving higher almost certainly for the next 5 months. The total for those 5 months in 2020 was +0.43% on core. The TOTAL.
  • So, core will be moving back towards 5%, even if the monthly figures settle in only at 0.2% per month. I’m not very optimistic that’s going to happen. But the Street is!!
  • We will be watching the usual ‘reopening’ items of course, but also watching RENTS and the breadth of this figure. And let’s not ignore food although not in the core – it’s one thing that consumers notice more than other things when it’s persistent.
  • I expect Rents to continue to move higher. So looking for that. And watching Median CPI, which set a new multi-year high month/month last month. It’s at 2.42% y/y and will be higher this month.
  • I’d also look at some of the “re-closing” categories that dragged down core CPI last month to reverse. Again, not a lot of sign that most prices are declining, even if rates of change are slowing.
  • Good luck out there. 5 minutes to the figure.

  • The economists nailed it! Well, mostly. Core was +0.24%, so at the upper end of the forecast range before rounding up. Y/Y went to 4.04%, also just barely not rounded up. But been a while since we were worried about rounding. Let’s look at the breakdown though.
  • Airfares plunged again, another -6.4% m/m. That’s going to change soon if vaccine mandates provoke more labor shortages there. But it does appear, from my own anecdotal observation, that airfares have been actually declining.
  • Lodging Away from Home -0.56% m/m. Used cars -0.7% m/m. Car and Truck rental -2.9% m/m. So, most of the “reopening” categories are still dragging this month, what I’d thought was a one-off. I didn’t think they’d top-ticked the prices before.
  • But New cars and trucks were +1.30% m/m after 1.22% the month before. As I’ve said before, the New/Used gap that closed when Used car prices spiked can open again in two ways. Used car prices can decline (no sign of that) or New car prices can rise.
  • Now, that was your good news for the day.
  • Primary Rents were +0.45% m/m, boosting y/y to 2.43%. OER was +0.43% m/m, boosting y/y to 2.90%. Whoopsie. Totally expected. And yet, kept seeing how the eviction moratorium wasn’t really holding down rents. Hmmm.
  • Medical Care, though, remains a soft spot for reasons that I just can’t fathom. Flat m/m. Pharmaceuticals rebounded to be +0.28% this month, but Doctors’ Services fell -0.30% and Hospital Services followed a strong month with a tepid +0.11%.
  • Apparel also plunged this month, -1.12% m/m. Small category, big move. Still 3.4% y/y, which is big for clothing, but it’s weird. With ports backed up, I’ve been seeing stock-outs in a lot of sizes of the stuff I buy. Shortages are unmeasured inflation. But still.
  • Quick look at 10y breakevens has them +3bps since before the number. The rents spike has people spooked. And it should. That’s the steadiest component. All of these large moves in little categories tend to mean-revert.
  • Core goods decelerates to +7.3% y/y (yayy!). But core services accelerates to 2.9% y/y (boooo!).
  • Core CPI ex-shelter dropped to 4.66% from 4.79%. So that’s the effect of all of these small categories. Meanwhile, rents boomed. And core-ex-rent at 4.66% isn’t exactly soothing.
  • Chart of core ex-shelter, and shelter. In the middle, you get core at 4%. If you want core to get back to 2%, you need core-ex to really plunge because shelter isn’t about to reverse lower.
  • Speaking of shelter, I hate to say I told you so but…and we have a long way to go.
  • Now let’s look at tuitions. Since we are in the Sept/Oct period, we’re going to find the new level of tuitions, which will be smoothed out over the next year with seasonals. This month, the NSA jumped 0.56%, and the y/y rose to 1.73% from 1.20%.
  • Tuitions aren’t going to jump a ton this year, but in 2022 I expect them to take a bump – partly to reclaim colleges’ purchasing power and partly because the product will be better next year.
  • Sorry, error. That was for the Education and Communication broad category. College Tuition and fees rose 0.96% m/m (NSA), and to 1.72% y/y from 0.83% y/y. Sorry.
  • Other goods. Appliances +1.55% m/m. Furniture and Bedding +2.35% m/m. Motor vehicle parts and equipment +0.85% m/m. Medical equipment and supplies +0.96% m/m. So doctors? Not so much. EKG machine? Syringe? Give me your credit card.
  • Breakevens dropping back. That’s profit-taking on the pop. They’re going to keep going up I think.
  • Biggest core m/m declines annualized: Public Transportation (-46%), Car/Truck Rental (-30%), Womens/Girls Apparel (-28%), Jewelry & Watches (-18%), Misc Personal Goods (-13%).
  • Biggest core annualized m/m increases: Motor Vehicle Insurance (+28%), New Vehicles (+17%), Household Furnishings/Ops (+13%), Motor Vehicle Parts/Equip (+11%), Infants’/Toddlers’ Apparel (+11%).
  • I said pay attention to food, which is what people notice. Overall Food & Beverages was +0.87% m/m. Some big movers: Meats Poultry Fish Eggs (+29% annualized), Other food @ home (15%), Cereals/baking products (13%).
  • Oh my. Median. My early estimate, which I hope is wrong, is +0.45% m/m. If I’m right that would be the highest in 30 years. On MEDIAN. Not meaningfully higher than that m/m since 1982.
  • If that’s right, the y/y would be 2.78%. Still short of the 2019 highs, but not for long.
  • That median calculation tells me I need to look at the diffusion and distribution charts. Which will take a couple of minutes to calculate. Please hold.
  • While we are waiting for the diffusion stuff, here are the four-pieces charts.
  • Piece 1: Food & Energy. The most volatile, but recently it’s just been up. And this is the part that people notice. Normally ignored because it mean-reverts. But it’s hard to get near-term bearish on energy or food, especially as the latter involves lots of pkging and transport.
  • Core goods. Coming off the boil because of Used Cars. Staying as high as it is because of New Cars and other durables. Sort of concerning it isn’t dropping faster.
  • Core services less rent of shelter. The one encouraging piece although it relies heavily on medical. Service providers not yet passing through wage increases so much. This is where the spiral would really happen, if it did.
  • Piece 4, and the news of the day. Rent of Shelter is now shooting higher, after being held down by the eviction moratorium and lack of mobility. This will set multi-decade highs over the next year, and as the slowest piece makes “transitory” much harder to believe.
  • The Enduring Investments Inflation Diffusion Index. Not that you need this chart to convince you, but price pressures are the broadest in about 15 years. And getting broader, fast.
  • So, here is the distribution of y/y price changes by base component weights. Note two things: (1) there is a long right tail, which is symptomatic of inflationary periods. Core above median. (2) The whole middle has shifted higher. This is of course largely rents.
  • So…we are getting higher inflation from the slow-moving pieces, and higher inflation from the fast-moving pieces. What’s not to like.
  • And finally, here is a chart of the weight of all components that have y/y inflation above the Fed’s target (which equates to about 2.25% on CPI, roughly). Highest in a long time. Only 1 in 5 purchase dollars is going to something inflating less than the Fed’s target.
  • So in sum…the overall 0.2% on core, which was nearly 0.3%, was the best news of the day. There is nothing in the details, distributions, or trends to make you think this is about to end.
  • Because of comps, we can be confident that y/y core and median inflation are going to accelerate for at least the next 5 months. And there’s nothing to convince me that the monthlies are going to stay nice and tame.
  • Transitory is dead. There is too much liquidity. The Fed now needs to choose whether to drain liquidity (not just taper), and live with much lower asset prices, or keep pumping asset prices “for the rich,” while we all ultimately lose in real purchasing power.
  • Powell is over a barrel, but to be fair he was also the cooper.
  • FWIW, I think the taper will happen. It will stop when one of two things happens: (1) Brainard replaces Powell or (2) Stock prices decline 15%. The Fed is fighting a war and they don’t even know it yet. They are working to keep the bread and circuses flowing.
  • That’s all for today. I will have the summary post up on http://mikeashton.wordpress.com  in an hour or less. Visit our website https://enduringinvestments.com ! Get the Inflation Guy app. Check out the podcast “Cents and Sensibility.” And stay safe out there.
  • Biden to meet with ports, labor on supply chain bottlenecks
  • I mean, this will definitely help, right? “Mister President, since you asked, we’ll clean it up.”

Biden to meet with ports, labor on supply chain bottlenecks

  • Just heard that the Inflation Guy app has been “temporarily” pulled from the Google Play store. Uh-huh. Totally normal. Waiting for the notice from Twitter that I’ve been kicked off for “spreading disinformation.”

One of the ways you can tell this is getting bad is that the people who told us this was all transitory, had nothing to do with money, and would be over soon are doing one or more things from this list:

  1. Pretending they never said it.
  2. Pretending they didn’t mean what they obviously meant.
  3. Getting angry because they were wrong and you were right.
  4. Accuse you of also being wrong because you didn’t specifically say Used Cars was going up.
  5. Trying to talk over, or squelch, the people who are bearing the bad news.

Last month, we had an 0.1% on core. But when you looked at the details, it wasn’t really soothing because it was being held down by the “COVID categories” which were falling again. You didn’t really have to squint, but you had to look below the headline. This month, we almost printed an 0.3% on core, and that was only because of those same categories (plus apparel), for the most part. You didn’t need to look hard to see the problem. Primary rents had their biggest m/m jump since 1999. OER, the biggest jump since the heart of the housing bubble in 2006. Those are big pieces, and we have a great deal of confidence that they are going to continue to rock-n-roll. After all, we have long said that rents were being restrained mainly by the eviction moratorium and would begin to normalize after the moratorium was lifted. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The trajectory of inflation is becoming clearer. The debate is no longer whether inflation is going up but how high it will get and when the peak will happen. That’s the right debate. The ancillary debate is whether the next ebb will be at 2% or something higher, like 3%. Some outliers still see the next ebb as serious deflation, but those are the same people who thought we wouldn’t see inflation when the Fed started printing money that the Treasury spent. [Note to the purists: yes, the Fed doesn’t “print” money, but it’s silly to argue that buying bonds for reserves isn’t equivalent ‘because it’s an asset swap.’ That’s just sophistry. It’s also an asset swap when I buy a refrigerator for cash, but circumstances have clearly changed for both buyer and seller when I do so. Anyway, go sell your crazy somewhere else. We’re all stocked up here.]

There is at least a sliver of good in this mess, and that’s that while investors in the main totally blew the chance to buy cheap inflation protection before this all happened (because they believed inflation was not a risk), and totally forgot that inflation affects not only asset prices but stock and bond correlations, they are re-learning these lessons from the 1970s and 1980s. And so investing hygiene will be better going forward. We have more tools to hedge inflation now than we did in the 1970s, and failing to use those tools in a healthy investment portfolio will no longer be acceptable.

And I know I don’t need to say it, but my company Enduring Investments is here to help those investors. Just like all of those other experts, except we’ve been here for longer.

%d bloggers like this: